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Updated: 19th November 2009

Leading social networking website Facebook has revised its existing privacy policy, stripping out technical and legal jargon and opting for a plain English approach. The new policy is also reported to encourage the use of Facebook’s privacy and security tools. Full details can be found at:

When you receive an unrequested sales call or a suspicious email do you provide them with your personal information? No, didn’t think so. Yet we appear more than happy to publish immense amounts of personal information online. Growth in the popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and LinkedIN to name but a few, has led to growing concerns that those publishing their personal information online are unaware of the potential risks.

Darren Farnden, Marketing Manager

Darren Farnden, Marketing Manager

Tiscali recently commissioned a report into this issue and found that, of 2,505 people surveyed, the most common personal details published online are photos (68%), date of birth (49%), email addresses (40%) and 20% have even uploaded their job details. Worryingly the report also found that almost 1/3rd (30%) make their social networking profile public, whilst 13% were unaware of the difference between public and private profiles and an alarming 5% published their home address.

So why should we be worried by these stats? Well, information such as your full name, date of birth and address can easily be used by fraudsters to set up loans and credit cards in your name plus, by gathering detailed information about you, they can use this to try to persuade you that they are genuine and obtain more information from you such as your bank details. There are also more obvious security concerns over publishing things like you home address, telephone number or email address on the Internet.

With these concerns in mind, just why is it that we would not dream of giving this information to a stranger in any other situation, yet we are perfectly happy to share this information with everyone on Facebook and the like? I personally think it’s because we’re under the illusion that our information on sites such as Facebook is only accessed by our friends and family, people we trust and is therefore safe. If your profile is set to private and you have thoroughly sorted out your privacy settings that may well be the case but, as the Tiscali report shows, almost a third do not have private profiles and that means their information is available to the entire Internet using public.

Surprisingly, the same report showed that those people who are happy to share information through social networking sites were alarmed to discover the amount of information available about them online without their knowledge or consent and a significant majority (94%) believed that publishing this sort of information was an invasion of their privacy.

Worryingly, even those who should arguably know better are falling for the lure of social networking sites. A recent report in the Mail on Sunday revealed that even the new head of MI5’s wife, Lady Shelley Sawers, had a public Facebook profile which included family photos, the location of her home and her children’s names.

It appears our concerns are not going unnoticed. Facebook seems to be acutely aware of the privacy issue and argues that it is implementing changes to its system to make it easier for users to amend their privacy settings. However, critics suggest that these proposed changes do not go far enough to inform the users of the possible risks and in fact still encourage users to share information. Default privacy settings also remain ‘public’, leaving less savvy users at risk.

I think the key issue here is public awareness. Although awareness of identity theft and online scams has increased over recent years, I think we are still a long way off a comprehensive understanding of this issue and just how far reaching it is. Here we’ve focused our attention on social networking sites but the same is true of many other types of online media including things like Wikipedia and Google Earth.

In my view Facebook and other similar sites have a responsibility to clearly state the risks associated with leaving your profile public and should discourage users from making certain types of information such as home address and work details available. I’m not saying for one minute that we shouldn’t use social networking sites and similar technologies, far from it. When I’m not relaxing in my living room at 27 Vladimir Avenue, Stacton Tressell or reading my darren870@googleymail.com emails, I use them myself. I’m simply trying to raise awareness of the possible risks associated with publishing certain types of personal information. As a rule, I’d suggest if you wouldn’t give the information to a stranger in any other situation e.g. a sales call, then don’t publish it online and if you are using social networking sites ensure you carefully set your privacy settings, considering the information you are making available and to whom.

Have your say?

What are your thought on this issue? Do you think we need to raise awareness of the privacy risks or do you think this is being blown out of proportion? Leave us a comment.

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